Trinity Sunday — June 12, 2022

A Looking into the Lectionary reflection by Whitney Wilkinson Arreche.

Trinity Sunday
Psalm 8:1-9

What are the essential tenets of the Reformed faith? This question can strike fear in the hearts of many Presbyterians because these tenets are, perhaps needfully, loosely defined. When I have faced this type of question, I often speak of the agency of God in choosing human beings first, of being created in God’s image, of human tendencies toward idolatry and tyranny. I speak of God’s grace. And mostly, in what seems in my mind to be a benchmark of Reformed (and Presbyterian) identity, I speak of the sovereignty of God.

For roughly 35 years of my life as a cradle Presbyterian, God’s sovereignty felt like a cozy blanket: well-worn, secure, and comforting. God is in charge, and that is good news. And then, during coursework for my doctorate in theology, I took a class on the history of sovereignty. I wanted to learn more about this word, and how it connects to colonialism and power.

There, I learned about Hugo Grotius, who is often called the “father of international law.” Hugo’s most important work was his anonymously published book in 1609, The Free Sea. Here, he argued that law was founded upon God’s sovereignty. There was, at this time, a dispute (putting it mildly) between the Dutch and the Portuguese because the Dutch stole a Portuguese ship off the coast of Singapore in 1603. Hugo wrote to defend the right of that seizure by the Dutch East India Company because it occurred during a “just war.”

What Hugo argued is this: the sea is fluid, so it cannot be possessed. It is the domain of God alone. But it can be appropriated for trade. Before you think that this Grotius guy doesn’t sound too bad, note that this “freedom of the seas” actually worked to help the Dutch break up the trade monopolies in the ocean … and then establish their own monopoly. His definition of sovereignty was based upon the occupation of lands deemed “empty” of civilization, and the appropriation of trade routes for a few very wealthy nations.

According to Grotius, and those who followed him, sovereignty means that the sovereign (and there can only ever be one) is not subject to the legal control of any other power. The people cannot take back power — revolution is illegal. The sovereign can seize your land and your life at any time. Their order is law because their power comes from God. Again, this man is named the “father of international law.” I now encourage you to read Psalm 8.

O Lord, our sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth … what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? You have given them dominion over the works of your hands…whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Do you think Hugo Grotius, who was a Protestant, read these words? Does knowledge of this history cause your understanding of God as sovereign to tremble, just a little? The easy homiletical task would be to simply say that human sovereignty and divine sovereignty are completely different things. To draw a theological border between them and defend that border. And yet, this text itself crumbles such easy bordering: You have given them dominion … you have put all things under their feet. In Psalm 8, God’s sovereignty and human sovereignty are inextricable. Given the ongoing history of colonial power, in the name of God, this should make us uncomfortable.

So, then, what are we to do with this text? How are we to preach it? One way to interrupt the repeated theologizing of sovereignty in this text is to account for how human sovereignty has, on the whole, concerned only men, and primarily men of European descent. In her A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Wil Gafney shakes up the cozy sovereignty of Psalm 8. She argues that, in the Psalter, God is given a variety of reverent names, each specific to the time and context. Adonai, translated as Lord, has been classically common, perhaps in part due to the influences of people like Hugo Grotius. Gafney chooses another way to name God’s sovereign power: as a womb. She translates Psalm 8 in this way:

Womb of Life, our Sovereign,
how exalted is your Name in all the earth!
Out of the mouths of children and nursing babes
your majesty is praised above the heavens.
You have founded a stronghold against your adversaries,
to put an end to the enemy and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have established,
What are we that you should be mindful of us?
the woman-born that you attend to them?
You have made us a little lower than God;
you adorn us with glory and honor;
You give us mastery over the works of your hands;
you put all things under our feet:
All sheep and oxen,
even the wild beasts of the field,
The birds of the air, the fish of the sea,
and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.
Womb of Life, our Sovereign,
how exalted is your Name in all the earth!

This sort of sovereignty does not take life, it gives it. The sovereign will of God is not exercised by imbuing select earthly leaders with supernatural power. This Psalm is for all who are born of a woman, for all of us. If we are given authority over other creatures, that authority is rooted in maternal love that creates, in attending to need and in mindfulness. We hear echoes of Proverbs 8:22: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.”

If I am very honest with myself, as all who preach and teach should be, I will still not likely list “sovereign” as one of my first ways of naming the character of God. But this text has stirred me to reckon with that discomfort and to consider a triune God who exercises power through the hard work of birthing – and re-birthing – creation. And choosing to use us in the process.

“In sovereign love, God created [birthed] the world good and makes everyone equally in God’s image.” — A Brief Statement of Faith

Questions for reflection:

  • What words do you use to describe God? Where did they come from?
  • How do you see God birthing new life in our midst, even in the face of grief and pain?
  • What good acts are you being called to do on behalf of creation? How do these good acts cross, and not reinforce, borders?